Today I'm going to venture away from my usual niche of statistics and into the mysterious and compelling realm of prediction. That's right, my usual calculator gives way to a crystal ball, my mathematical approach gives way to voodoo. So I'll tell you what I see the standings being in the Northeast during the gap between regular season and playoff hockey. Let's start.
1. Boston Bruins
The Bruins are the favourite to repeat as Northeast champs, and I see no reason for them not to. They have an impressive mix of offense prowess, defensive responsibility and intimidating physicality in their top-6, headlined by high-flying Tyler Seguin looking to improve on his 67 point output and former Olympian Patrice Bergeron coming off a Selke trophy. On defence, they're led by captain Zdeno Chara and his partner Dennis Seidenberg, who respectively clocked in 25 and 24 minutes of TOI a game last year. The only question mark lies in goal, as former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas has taken a year off to focus on family, friends and faith. Tuukka Rask's performance in his first legitimate starting role will dictate how the Bruins fare against the other elite teams of the East.
2. Ottawa Senators
One of the feel-good stories of the 2011-2012 season, the Senators managed to snag the final playoff spot only a year after finishing 26th in the league. Their offense is led by Jason Spezza, who had a fantastic season under coach Paul Maclean. Spezza's highly competent supporting staff, made up most notably of Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, will welcome the potential arrival of rookies Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfververg. The defence features Norris winner Erik Karlsson, who managed 78 points last season. Veteran Chris Phillips, sophomore Jared Cowen and newcomer Marc Methot will make up the rest of the top 4. Craig Anderson has been good for the Senators since they traded for him, and Ottawa can rely on either Ben Bishop or Robin Lehner if Anderson stumbles. Unless they are ravaged by injuries, I expect Ottawa to once again be a playoff team.
3. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres narrowly missed out on a playoff spot last year, and this year they will once again be in the hunt. Their offense is led by captain and hometown favourite Jason Pominville, but also features Austrian sniper Thomas Vanek. Joining the offensive charts will be former Dallas Star Steve Ott, whom the Sabres traded for in an effort to increase the grit in their top 6. Youngsters Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson should continue to develop. The issue for the Sabres might be scoring goals, but it will likely not be allowing them. Fresh of his EA Sports ranking of 92, Ryan Miller will be playing behind a competent, albeit unspectacular defensive unit that features Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera, among others. Buffalo is another bubble team in a tightly packed Eastern conference playoff picture.
4. Montreal Canadiens
Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Montreal, the franchise once symbolizing success in hockey, stumbled to a terrible statistical season last year, finishing last in the Eastern Conference. However, this is reason for hope of improvement. Montreal played bad hockey for stretches, but they were also very unlucky last season. Injuries had a huge impact on the team, as did the incredible amount of shootout losses. The Habs will once again rely on their first-line of Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty for offense this year. After that, they can hope for a bounce-back year from PK specialist Tomas Plekanec and the continued development of Lars Eller, who showed flashes of brilliance last year. PK Subban and Josh Gorges will lead the D, and will welcome back Andrei Markov for (hopefully) an injury-free season. Look for hard-hitting sophomore Alexei Emelin to continue to make an impact. Carey Price should continue to put up impressive numbers and slowly earn his starting spot for Canada at the Sochi Games.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
While this ranking may be a bit biased, I fully believe the Leafs will once again have a bad season. I'm not just saying that because I'm a Habs fan, I'm saying that because the Leafs' roster doesn't encourage a lot of optimism. After Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, it really doesn't look at that great. The Leafs lack a true first-line center and their bottom 6 lacks scoring ability. Their second line looks alright, but until James van Riemsdyk proves he can handle playing in Toronto, I'll be skeptical. Their D is offensively inclined, and lacks character and grit. Phaneuf is a tad overrated, but that was cancelled out by Jake Gardiner's impressive rookie season last year. In goal, 'Optimus Reims' was playing well until he was injured by Brian Gionta's bottom and it remains to be seen if he can bounce back. Ben Scrivens will be a serviceable backup after a solid Calder Cup run with the Marlies. However, there are still far too many holes in this lineup to even consider them to be playoff calibre.
I'll be back sometime soon with my predictions for the Atlantic division.
Thanks for Reading!